Playing through Dragon’s Crown brought back a torrent of memories for me. It harkens back to the days when side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Golden Axe ruled the arcades, an era of gaming when frenetic pacing took a front seat to story, art, or sound, and when pure gameplay was king. Of course, Dragon’s Crown's exceptionally beautiful graphics and atmospheric soundtrack prove that the two priorities aren’t mutually exclusive, but the essence of this game doesn’t hinge on frills and aesthetics. It instead relies on enjoyable action, a rewarding experience system, and an addictive loot scheme, gameplay-centric features that overshadow everything around them.
Dragon’s Crown is drowning in features that speak to hardcore gamers, but strangely, its most understated strength is how broad its appeal can be. The option to select from six totally unique character classes represents one of its key tenets: it’s essentially as hard as you want it to be. Cleverly built into its classes is a de facto difficulty system, one that ranks characters by each statistic and rather overtly illustrates who each class is catered to. So while the straight-forward Fighter or brutally powerful Dwarf might provide an easier romp, using spellcasters like the Sorceress and Wizard requires a touch of finesse and will increase Dragon’s Crown’s difficulty level exponentially. This is in addition to an actual difficulty setting that can only be unlocked once the roughly 15-to-20-hour campaign is beaten.
For a game that simultaneously underlines, bolds, and italicizes its multiplayer functionality – whether locally, online, or with AI companions – this kind of accessibility for entry-level players is worthy of applause. This is especially true when you realize that Dragon’s Crown is undeniably hardcore, even if it’s able to lull some people into thinking otherwise.are more than mere palette-swaps, and the significant differences between them (thanks to six unique skill trees) makes selecting yours about much more than who looks cool or fun. There are actual, serious implications attached to your choice, significantly compounded because you can’t switch classes without starting all over again. Each class provides a new experience, even though you’re facing down the same fantastically designed enemies strewn about the same lush environments while being told the same story.
Speaking of story, Dragon’s Crown’s plot is its greatest weakness, not because of the tale it attempts to weave (which I won’t spoil here), but because that tale slows everything down and reminds us of its repetitive nature. The adventure revolves around a hub town with a tavern, a guild, a shop, and more, and it spends way too much time sending us traveling between these locations – and others – to see who wants what and who has what to say. This is especially pronounced early on, when you’re probably going to be most eager to get into the action. I appreciate that developer Vanillaware attempted to round out Dragon’s Crown with a meaningful story to guide its action, but at the end of the day, it just gets in the way.
That busywork would’ve been grating on its own, but it’s intensified when the narrator repeats, over and over again, the same few lines of dialogue as you enter and exit buildings or come in and out of town. If you opt to ignore the main thread in the adventure to go level up, acquire some loot, or take care of some side quests, get ready to hear the same thing constantly until you move on to the next piece of the story (thankfully, you can turn off voice acting and on-screen text to dodge this). Then again, once you get past the story and into the action, Dragon’s Crown truly delivers.
Hydeland is a fantasy world riddled with monsters, and the map of this vast kingdom will bring you to any of nine locations that you’ll be visiting time and time again. Each location has alternate routes and hidden rooms, as well as two bosses to fight, so while a greater diversity in stages may have been preferable, especially for a game on the more expensive end of the spectrum, there’s enough variety in their design that revisiting levels doesn’t drag the experience down much.
Dragon’s Crown’s beauty really shines in many of these levels, with gorgeous enemy animations and wonderfully realized environments. I loved fighting through an enemy-filled forest, only to later find myself in a besieged castle, and then in cavernous catacombs crawling with enemies. Each area looks and feels different. Likewise, boss designs are astounding; you may die once or twice just trying to stare at them when you should be fighting them. When coupled with some great tunes and sporadic voice acting, Dragon’s Crown is a presentational marvel.
Combat can be ruthlessly chaotic, especially with a screen full of enemies and four players going at it at once. If you play Dragon’s Crown alone – which is a lot of fun – you can actually find and resurrect AI-controlled characters to help you out. This becomes a necessity midway through the campaign; by the time I reached the end, I’d have been lost without any sort of help. The good news is that, with the aforementioned tenet of accessibility, no matter how grueling combat gets and how shellacked you might get, you can (almost) always revive yourself and your partners if you have gold to spare. And as long as you’re careful, you pretty much always will.
Outside of battle, Dragon’s Crown packs a dizzying litany of excellent action-RPG features. Its loot system – which is a major focal point – will give you all manner of new gear, equipment, and items to utilize or sell, with the added risk/reward element of making you spend gold to appraise them. In the hub town’s Adventure’s Guild, a myriad of side quests that give you extra gold, experience points, skill points, and unlockable artwork lie in wait.
Dragon’s Crown can be played online on both PS3 and PS Vita, and it’s an outstanding game for PS3 couch co-op. But with Vita, online (or ad-hoc) play is your only multiplayer recourse, and unfortunately, the two versions of Dragon’s Crown don’t speak to each other, apart from save-sharing. The Vita version also chugged online for me on occasion when the screen got really crowded, though the online PS3 experience is quite smooth. Nonetheless, online play is an excellent choice for those who are having difficulty getting through latter stages (and difficulties) on their own, and need help from higher-leveled and higher-skilled players.